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John Hamilton, an enterprising young Bay Area radio journalist, freelancing for Media Matters, recently committed a simple act of journalism -- you know, interviewing the subject of an important story -- and came away with the most amazing scoop:
Two weeks later, I'm back at the Santa Rita Jail, speaking with Byron Williams through the reinforced glass window that separates Housing Unit 8 from the outside world. This time, I press Byron on his media influences.
"I considered all of the news agencies to be censored," Byron says. "So perhaps Fox has broken away from the mold."
"There's only one conservative channel," he adds. "That's Fox. All the other ones are all liberal channels."
At one point, I ask Byron if he thinks Fox is worthwhile.
"I'm not gonna say anyone is worthwhile," he replies. "I would have never started watching Fox News if it wasn't for the fact that Beck was on there. And it was the things that he did, it was the things he exposed that blew my mind. I said, well, nobody does this."
Throughout the interview -- and in a letter I would receive later -- Byron tells me I need to watch Beck's programs from June if I want to learn about the Soros-Obama-Petrobras conspiracy he heatedly described in our earlier conversation.
"Think like a conspiracy theorist," Byron tells me during the interview. "Except don't use the word 'theory.' Because the conspiracies are not theories. The official report is the lie; the conspiracy is the truth."
Byron says he thinks Beck has improved in recent months. "I don't think he's a natural newscaster, you know what I mean?" he says. "I look at it more like a schoolteacher on TV, you know? He's got that big chalkboard and those little stickers, the decals. I like the way he does it."
Back at the Santa Rita Jail, Byron again weighs in on Beck. "You know, I'll tell you," he says, "Beck is gonna deny everything about violent approach and deny everything about conspiracies, but he'll give you every reason to believe it. He's protecting himself, and you can't blame him for that. So, I understand what he's doing."
I ask Byron if he thinks Beck has a political movement. After all, I say, hundreds of thousands of people came out to hear him speak at his "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington, D.C.
"I think so," says Byron. "If there's hundreds of thousands of us, yes. Yeah, it's coming down to the line, you know, and these controllers are not backing off. They want total control, and they're gonna try to get it. And more and more people are waking up."
I ask Byron, are you a revolutionary, a criminal, a terrorist, a patriot?
"I'm a revolutionary," he responds. "I believe in the Constitution. I do not like crime."
"You have to have a society that is pure and clean," he says. "And you have to keep it that way. We have to go back to our original principles."
Byron tells me his name came up on Beck's show.
Yeah, I heard that, I say.
Byron says: "Yeah, I didn't know it went that far. I thought maybe, OK, I hit the local news, that's great. You know, not something I really wanted to happen. But I didn't know it all went all the way across the country. They were trying to -- I guess -- it wasn't good, you know? They were trying to say that it was a thing that now that the left would use it against us, right? And an act of violence."
"And I'd say, well, you know, that's the thing. It's that anything you do is going to be considered promoting terror attacks or promoting violence. So now they've got Beck labeled as this guy that is trying to incite violence. And what I say is that if the truth incites violence, it means that we've been living too long in the lies.
"Because it's gonna be too many -- it's gonna be more and more people that are, you know -- when you become unemployed, desperate, you can no longer pay your bills, when your society has come to a standstill, and cannot grow anymore, you're becoming socialized, everything, you know -- companies are moving overseas, what do you think is gonna happen? You know, for crying out loud. It's gonna get worse. And more and more people are gonna get desperate."
Go read the whole thing. Hamilton and the Media Matters team did a great job putting this report together.
The Examiner, in an article published this week, exonerated Beck by pointing to Williams's statement that "I know Beck continuously talks about peaceful resolution but I have constantly disagreed." This, however, misses the point. It's not that Beck is directly advocating violence (he might be in Santa Rita himself if he did that) but he's giving voice and legitimacy to the violent fringe.
As we've explained, it's irrelevant if Beck has accompanied his fearmongering with warnings against violence -- that's akin to warning people that, since he's sprinkling them with kerosene, they shouldn't light any matches.
Ideologues who inspire violent action through radicalizing propaganda have been with us for many decades, even centuries. The fact that, in recent years, the more action-prone of the people who violently respond to these exhortations are increasingly confined to the fringes of American politics doesn't mean there isn't still serious culpability on the part of those who indulge rhetoric that winds up unhinging people.
The critical components that distinguish irresponsible free speech from responsible are interworking pieces: whether it is intended to harm by scapegoating or demonizing, and whether or not it is provably false. ... [Demonizing rhetoric more often than not comprises] things that are simply not true -- though the tellers wished ardently that they were, they are purely concoctions of their fevered imaginations.
This is true of so much far-right wingnuttery -- the "Birther" conspiracy theories, the FEMA-camp claims, the "constitutionalist" theories about taxation and the Federal Reserve, to list just a few examples -- and yet people believe them anyway.
This rhetoric also acts as a kind of wedge between the people who absorb it and the real world. There is always a kind of cognitive dissonance that arises from believing things that are provably untrue, and people who begin to fanatically cling to beliefs that do not comport with reality find themselves increasingly willing to buy into other similarly unhinged beliefs. For those who are already unhinged, the effects are particularly toxic.
All of these theories, you'll observe, serve the explicit purpose of supporting a scapegoating narrative. And a number of them have been featured in some shape, form, or fashion, in the mainstream public discourse because they have been presented seriously for discussion by various right-wing talking heads, most notably Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs.
But pointing out their ethical and moral culpability inevitably means that they immediately blame it on the "crazy" people, and who can take responsibility for "crazy" people?
Indeed, now it's unmistakable -- Howard Kurtz's "isn't that guilt by association" wankery a couple Sundays ago notwithstanding -- that what we've been saying all along is taking place: Glenn Beck's (and Fox News') reckless and profoundly irresponsible style of broadcast "news" is in fact inspiring acts of violence.
Beck has tried to pretend he has nothing, nothing to do with this violence. He's even run segments desperately pleading with his audience not to resort to violence. Of course, he's also qualified that: If violence does break out, it will be because President Obama provoked it.
Beck also combines his warnings with long screeds demonizing progressives. As Milbank pointed out in the sidebar to his excellent (if belated) deconstruction of Beck's misbegotten twisting of history: "One of Glenn Beck's cleverest ways to float a good conspiracy theory without fear of facts getting in the way is to say he is "not saying" that which he is saying."
Actually, this tendency goes beyond just Beck's proclivity for conspiracism: He uses the same "I'm not saying, I'm just saying" dodge whenever he wants to float an idea that is vile and outrageous and create controversy and thus boost his ratings -- but he doesn't want to face any accountability for floating it.
Williams is right: Beck knows what he's doing. As we've said:
Make no mistake: Glenn Beck has been inciting acts of terrorist violence, and the Byron Williams case clearly establishes it -- even though it is far from the first such case. It in fact was preceded by several similar cases in which the dehumanizing rhetoric, scapegoating and conspiracist smears promoted by Fox clearly played a powerful role in the violence that ensued:
-- Jim David Adkisson's shooting attack on a Knoxville Unitarian church. Adkisson left behind a manifesto that repeated numerous right-wing talking points generated by Fox commentators and specifically cited a Bernard Goldberg book. His library at home was stocked with books by Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage.
-- Richard Poplawski's shooting of three Pittsburgh police officers, because he believed a conspiracy theory that President Obama intended to take Americans' guns away from them, and he reportedly believed the cops had arrived to carry it out. Poplawski, a white supremacist, liked to post Beck videos about FEMA concentration camps to the Stormfront comments board.
-- Scott Roeder's assassination of Dr. George Tiller. Roeder was heavily involved in Operation Rescue and avidly read its newsletters -- which featured weekly pieces from Bill O'Reilly, including several attacking Tiller as a "baby killer" -- and its website, which liked to feature O'Reilly videos attacking Dr. Tiller. Indeed, O'Reilly had indulged a high-profile and unusually obsessive (not to mention vicious) jihad against Tiller, resulting in 42 such attacks on Tiller, 24 of which referred to him generically as a "baby killer."
The Byron Williams case was functionally a shot across Fox News' bow: a warning that it is playing with extreme fire by allowing Beck to recklessly demonize specific targets and to inflame his audience against them by imputing the most extreme and nefarious motives to them. In the case of Tides, Beck has been claiming all along that they are trying to "brainwash your children" -- a charge that always raises extremely visceral reactions.
If Fox allows this continue, then eventually someone -- someone who eats, breathes and lives Fox News, as so many right-wingers do these days -- is going to succeed. Eventually, someone is going to walk into (or drive up to) the offices of some group that Beck has singled out as being part of a nefarious progressive "cancer" that is "destroying America" -- whether it is the Tides Foundation, or the ACLU, or the SEIU, someone at MSNBC, or from ACORN -- and shoot the place up or set off a bomb.
And then not just Glenn Beck, but Fox News and all its affiliates, are going to have blood on their hands. And there will not be any hiding it or pretending otherwise.
Beck wants to pretend that all he's done is "discuss" the Tides Foundation -- but in fact he's consistently portrayed them as nefarious key players in the progressive "conspiracy" to "destroy America from within", and he's cast them in a particularly slimy role: propagandizing your unsuspecting children. Is it any wonder someone decided to "take them out"?
That's how this kind of rhetoric works. As I explain in The Eliminationists:
The history of eliminationism in America, and elsewhere, shows that rhetoric plays a significant role in the travesties that follow. It creates permission for people to act out in ways they might not otherwise. It allows them to abrogate their own humanity by denying the humanity of people deemed undesirable or a cultural contaminant.
At every turn in American history—from Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda’s characterization of the New World “barbarians” as “these pitiful men … in whom you will scarcely find any vestiges of humanness,” to Colonel Chivington’s admonition that “Nits make lice!,” to the declarations that “white womanhood” stood imperiled by oversexed black rapists, to James Phelan’s declaration that Japanese immigrants were like “rats in the granary”—rhetoric has conditioned Americans to think of those different from themselves as less than human. Indeed, their elimination is not just acceptable, but devoutly to be wished and actively sought.
It's one thing if a mentally unstable person acts out violently because of some perception or belief they obtained on their own -- when, for instance, someone shoots up a classroom or school because they heard voices telling them to do it, or from reading hidden messages into Metallica lyrics.
It's quite another if a person acts violently out of rhetoric specifically intended to inspire action, particularly radicalizing rhetoric. There are two specific kinds of rhetoric in this category that become profoundly irresponsible in this context: eliminationist rhetoric -- that is, words that demonize and dehumanize their subjects by characterizing them as toxic objects fit only for elimination -- and conspiracist rhetoric, which creates a state of paranoia and a feeling of helplessness among those who believe it. A final factor -- provable falsity -- often exponentially raises the effects of these kinds of rhetoric, because it has the real-world effect of driving a wedge between the believer and objective reality: people are far more likely to act out violently if they are disconnected from the real world.
Thanks to John Hamilton's fine journalism, Byron Williams has functionally confirmed what we've seen building in slow motion: a media outlet capable of launching an eliminationist crusade. It's time Americans woke up to the very real danger this represents.